The Moustache: From Early Modern Mousers to Wartime Wiskers

Close-up of a large handlebar moustache
Image credit: Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Facial hair has long been a source of fixation and fascination for mankind. Or, rather, I should say humankind, since rather a lot of us have to deal with face fur in one way or another, whether you’re the one growing it or simply find yourself living in close quarters with someone who is. 

In my own life, when puberty reared its spotty, whiskered head, I soon realised just how universal a concern facial hair could be. Every member of my household was united in their obsessive scrutiny of the faint smudge of hair that had taken hold on my upper lip; what divided us was our strong convictions of how best to handle the matter. Half thought it should be cultivated proudly and left to grow in wild locks and tresses as God or Nature intended, the other handed me a razor and said I could have a moustache or a roof over my head but not both. 

That was many years ago, but I’ve been met by the same quandary countless times since. To shave or not to shave? It’s a surprisingly fraught question, but one that is understandably pressing given how few style choices present themselves quite as front and centre as the hair on one’s face. For this reason, it’s little surprise that archaeological evidence would suggest we as a species have been having a go at our physiognomic fuzz since about 100 000 BCE (albeit by tweezing rather than shaving at first; a blade sharp enough to do the trick didn’t arrive until the Bronze age). 

Stone sculpture of a celtic hero with a moustache
Stone sculpture of a Celtic hero
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Should you decide to let it grow, however, the moustache presents a unique proposition. It signifies neither the reckless abandon of beard growth (however manicured that beard might actually be) nor the everything-must-go uniformity of the close shave. Instead, a tache is a patch of beard growth the maintenance of which somehow requires constant shaving. Or, if you prefer, it’s a clean shave that nevertheless demands you carefully and consistently miss a spot. Already, the moustache presents us with an oddly existential quandary and that’s without even getting to the much murkier territory that is notions of manliness as related to the mo.

You might, therefore, find yourself wondering what exactly the origins of such arguably odd ornamentation might be. The full history of pogonotrophy (that is, the art of growing facial hair) is, however, lost to time, leaving us to piece together evidence scattered about like so many shorn and discarded whiskers. We do know that the word ‘moustache’ arrives in English via French and Italian from the original Greek mystak or mystax in the sixteenth century, with the earliest known use dating to 1585. 

It’s not long after this date that moustaches begin to gain real traction in England thanks to a royal endorsement. Following a vogue for beardedness during the Elizabethan period, the Jacobean era kicks off in 1603 when James I takes the throne while sporting a handsome goatee that is duly immortalised in art and imitated by his followers. To look at portraits of subsequent rulers is to see a gradual evolution toward a solo tache being sported by the British monarch. James’s son, Charles I, still has a goatee, but his voluminously curled moustache is definitely the main attraction of his facial foliage. Then there’s the Oliver Cromwell interlude, which sees the republican leader sporting a pared-down (perhaps appropriately Puritan) version of the same style. It’s only when Charles II returns from exile in 1660, however, that we finally see a bonafide, unambiguous tache take the throne and one, moreover, which its precocious royal wearer began cultivating in his early teens.

By the late seventeenth century, beards had gone out of fashion altogether in Europe while moustaches were all the rage. Tsar Peter the Great’s infamous ‘beard tax’, which took effect in 1698, certainly helped things along. Such was the enthusiasm for growing whiskers over the ensuing century that by the early 1800s moustaches had reached such grand proportions as to connect up with a pair of equally unruly sideburns. 

The trend was briefly bucked by the Romantics, who eschewed these hirsute excesses and instead took their facial hair cues from the raffish poet, Lord Byron. He was a man said to be ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know,’ not least because of the apparent allure of his thinly curled moustache. Byron had a habit of flouting conventions and those dictating facial hair growth were no different. 

When the Crimean War came around in the mid-1800s, however, Biblical beards and bushy moustaches made a comeback, big time, since soldiers grew them as a means of protecting themselves from bitter cold and bouts of neuralgia. When they returned home from the battlefield, bearded beyond all recognition, bounteous facial hair soon came to signify heroism and British men cast aside their razors once more. It was enough to merit the invention of the moustache cup in 1860 by the English potter Harvey Adam, all just to keep all those many handlebar hairs at bay while drinking tea.  

The Industrial Revolution no doubt added fuel to this particular fire too. As machines began to do more and more of the heavy lifting that men once did, growing out one’s facial hair may have been a way to compensate for an ensuing crisis in masculinity. A massive beard or moustache, after all, seems as good a way as any to signal to the world that you’re still a man. 

A return of the moustache sans beard —  especially those of a more manicured variety —  came around the turn of the nineteenth century. While there had been bogus claims in the decades prior that facial growth could help keep disease from getting up your nose, the discovery of bacteria along with newspaper reports that connected beards with germs brought shaving back in full force. Throughout Europe and North America, new rules were put in place that prevented bearded men from handling food. An unshaven man in hospital would be shorn whether he liked it or not. Beard taboo was in full swing, but the stache luckily got a pass, which meant it came to dominate fashion and men’s faces once more.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, mos would go on to enjoy another wartime boom thanks to the start of the First World War. It was a conflict that ushered in a modern era, one that has been marked by a tumultuous social and political landscape for which the moustache provides a surprisingly good focalising lens. For the full story, be sure to tune in later this week for more in the twenty- and twenty-first-century tache.